Features March 1, 1998 Issue

Offshore Log: A West Indian Respite

After sailing from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda and on to Antigua, the crew of Calypso finds a world of anomalies—goats and roosters at dawn, rowdy yachties at dusk.

Calypso arrived in Falmouth Harbor, Antigua, just before Christmas, 1997. She covered the 1,600 nautical miles from Newport, Rhode Island to Antigua in almost exactly 12 days of sailing, making just under 135 miles per day in the right direction—an average speed of 5-1/2 knots. Conditions ranged from a half day of motoring in oily calm to seemingly endless days of bashing into 30-knot headwinds.

The tradewinds, when they finally filled in at about 21° north latitude, were almost due southeast. Since our course from Bermuda to Antigua was virtually due south, our introduction to tradewind sailing had us hard on the wind for the last 250 miles.

This was not an easy way to get to paradise.

The boat did fine. The crew, however, were at times a little the worse for wear, and it was good to plant the big CQR in the beautifully holding mud-sand bottom of Falmouth.

The Varnishers of Antigua
As we sailed into harbor, we were greeted by the wonderful, ever-present smell of the tropics: fresh varnish.

Antigua is known for its varnishers, who pride themselves on being the best in the world. From some of the jobs we’ve seen, you would be hard-pressed to argue the point.

Crews of Antiguans move from the Caribbean in the winter to Newport in the summer, following the yachts. The going rate is the same in either place: about $20 US per hour. It’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than the $50 per hour charged by US boatyards.

When we went alongside at the Catamaran Club to wash our salt-encrusted boat, a West Indian varnishing foreman came over to size us up, offering one of his six-man crews to repair the damage to our varnish caused by two weeks at sea. After a few minutes of discussion, during which he came to understand that we were not the type of cruisers with the deep pockets that would allow us to hire him, we realized that we had been neighbors in Newport. He stared in amazement at the boat that he vaguely remembered as a big white ark in our backyard, covered by blue poly tarps.

Antiguan varnishers use only one finish: Epifanes gloss varnish. Each has his own proprietary mix of thinners and brushing liquids to make the varnish flow properly without sagging. They apply varnish with nothing but badger-hair brushes, carefully cleaning them with mineral spirits at the end of the day.

Then many of them dump the used mineral spirits either into the harbor, or out onto the ground. Environmental awareness is still a little tenuous in this tropical paradise.

Planet Antigua
Antigua is definitely another world. Some 150 boats were at anchor or stern-to the docks when we arrived. We were just about the smallest.

In fact, a rough calculation showed that the average size boat in Falmouth—both sail and power—was something over 90 feet. At one point, there were four big blue Perini Navi ketches anchored out, each almost 50 meters long. That’s over 150 feet in American numbers, and God knows how many millions of dollars each. But four virtually identical boats of this size, in one harbor?

Just imagine the humiliation. The owner arrives in Antigua, complete with matched Louis Vuitton luggage, to meet his new yacht. Inexplicably, the ship’s launch isn’t there to meet him, so he hails the water taxi.

Owner: “Take me to the big Perini Navi ketch.”

Water taxi: “Which one?’

Owner, slightly exasperated: “The 50-meter one.”

Water taxi, also exasperated: “Which one?”

Very annoyed owner: “The dark blue one.”

Equally annoyed water taxi: “Which one?”

Water, Water
One of the best luxuries these huge boats enjoy is an unlimited supply of freshwater. You can tell who has a big watermaker by the amount of time spent washing down the boat at anchor.

We think we have seen the ultimate use of freshwater, however. It is fairly common to have a deck washdown—most often saltwater—to rinse crud off the anchor and chain as it comes aboard, since a bilge full of stinking mud is not very attractive.

As one big Perni Navi’s chain came in, hundreds of gallons of high-pressure water poured from the hawsepipe to wash the chain. The bow of the boat was surrounded with soap suds. We realized that not only was the chain being washed down as it came aboard, it appeared to be washed down with soapy freshwater. That’s our idea of a very fastidious owner.

Excess, Wretched or Not
They must have had a two-for-one deal on sailboats that day. At one point, Both Mirabella and Mirabella III were anchored in Falmouth. This nearly identical pair of ultra-modern sloops is each over 130 feet, and yes, they’re owned by the same person, who seems to be in a rut when it comes to naming boats. Maybe the two captains accidentally got the same set of orders to pick up the owner in Antigua.

Not to worry, however, He has a 200-footer on the drawing board—also a sloop.

The really big boats in Antigua, however, are the motor yachts. How can there be so much money in one tiny harbor in the West Indies? At one point Virginian was the biggest show in town, her 250 or so feet of length vying with the classic Talitha G., which in turn just edged out the next biggest nominee. The 130-foot J-boat Endeavour was just another sailboat in the harbor.

One day it all changed.

Around the corner came a huge shadow, which translated itself into Limitless—360' of gleaming new motoryacht, with a uniformed crew of 25.

Rumor was rampant about the owner, with Bill Gates the most common guess for the US-flagged superyacht, registered in Newport, Rhode Island. The boat—ship, more accurately—is so big that we doubt she could squeeze into Newport’s crowded harbor.

Even James Bond would have been intimidated by this one. Huge sections of the ship’s side open on hydraulic rams, displaying a varnished 40' Riva launch for not-so-discreet harbor tours. The Riva, of course, is only one of the ship’s tenders, with a slew of more commonplace ones for everyday use.

At night, the water surrounding Limitless was lit by dozens of huge underwater floodlights mounted in the hull, enabling, we suppose, a vast system of underwater cameras to monitor the comings and going of awestruck fish.

It took very little imagination to picture Sean Connery, disguised as a large grouper, swimming under the ship, sneaking aboard after throttling a few unwary Uzi-toting guards, then saving the world once again from a megalomaniac with a vaguely Teutonic accent, a steel claw for a hand, Kim Basinger for a slightly disoriented mistress, and a compact hydrogen bomb in the hold.

In reality, the anonymous owner, who uses the boat to cruise with his family, proved to a be a normal-looking 60-ish American—if anyone with enough money to own and operate 360 feet of motoryacht can look normal to us mere mortals.

The Missing Link
Unfortunately, our time in Antigua suggested no apparent link between the size of the yacht and the common sense or seamanship of the crews.

When we first came to the Caribbean 20 years ago, the most common tender was a traditional hard dinghy, perhaps with a 2- or 4-hp. motor.

Then came inflatables, whose compact storage size meant you could carry a larger tender. Outboards got bigger, too. Then came hard-bottom inflatables, and even bigger engines.

Now, huge hard-bottom inflatables with center consoles and 40-horse or bigger outboards are the minimum for the larger cruising yachts seen in Antigua.

Unfortunately, turning one of these beasts loose in the hands of many of the crews of these big boats is the equivalent of handing the keys to your Ferrari to your teenage son on Saturday night. Most of these crews seem to think that a tender has two speeds: flat-out, and dead stop. The concept of the engine’s throttle as a progressive control has not seeped through.

Despite the fact that no boat in the harbor is anchored more than a few hundred yards from shore, the crews seem determined to traverse the short distance in as little time as possible, independent of the consequences. Speeds of 20 knots or more in the packed harbor are common, day or night, with big tenders (you can hardly call them dinghies) passing within a few feet of anchored boats, and of each other.

A Close Call
We narrowly escaped serious injury or death on one of our first nights in Antigua when the high-powered tender of the sail training vessel Caledonia—a beautiful 120-foot gaff cutter—overtook us at about 20 knots in the dark, showing no running lights or flashlight, passing less than 5 feet away and swamping our dinghy. They never even saw us, according to the two cadets operating the boat.

My second reaction—the first was looking for a weapon to brain these two kids—was to consider dragging them before their skipper. Unfortunately, a few days of watching the boat’s professional crew handle the tender showed where the two youngsters got their ideas of how a small boat should be run: flat out, right mate?

In fact, this method of operating tenders is the norm, rather than the exception, in harbors frequented by big yachts. During a month at anchor, we saw countless near-collisions. On the few times when we took our dinghy ashore at night, we each held a high-powered flashlight, one aimed forward, one aft, in self-defense. Our battery-operated Fulton all-around white dinghy light had died shortly after its first use, and had been discarded. (When will somebody come up with a decent set of battery-operated dinghy running lights?)

Each year, these virtually un-policed harbors in the West Indies experience serious collisions between fast-moving yacht tenders, resulting in death or injury. You take your life in your hands just going over the side to clean the bottom during the day.

At one point, the owner of a big cruising sailboat—he must have been the owner, for he was a 40-ish man with a big gut, rather than the lean, 20-ish prototypical yacht crew—drove his tender at over 20 knots within 10 feet of our side, back and forth three times in a space of 10 minutes, delivering guests ashore.

After the third time, I stood on the bow with our high-powered deck washdown hose, just waiting for him to come by again. Some instinct must have told him it might not be a good idea to get so close to the small American cruising sailboat, whose owner was making rude gestures and screaming at the top of his lungs, a thin line of spittle forming on his lips.

We used to chafe under Newport, Rhode Island’s strict enforcement of a 5-mile-per-hour speed limit in the harbor. It now looks pretty rational, compared to the chaos that prevails in these anchorages.

There should be a special place reserved in purgatory for the youthful male and female crew of one big boat, who water-skied through the harbor behind their tender on numerous occasions, using anchored boats to create a slalom course.

Swan Song
At one point, we were surrounded by more than a dozen beautiful Nautor Swans, including five classic Swan 65 ketches. How can a 65-foot Swan look like a small boat in an anchorage? It’s simple: just plop it next to a 90-footer.

Falmouth looked like a Nautor calendar at one stage, with Flawless, their newest 100-foot offering, anchored in the midst of a flotilla of “smaller” Swans—mere 60-footers. You know you’re losing your perspective when a Swan 65 starts to look like a rationally sized and reasonably priced cruising boat for a couple.

Tropical Serenade
Don’t get the idea that this particular piece of paradise is a miserable place. Despite the hectic daytime pace of the harbor, and the sometimes loud music drifting from the shoreside bars full of yachties (or from the boat next door), even this crossroads has its moments of utter peace and tranquillity.

They usually come just before dawn, when the more natural symphony of the tropics is in full swing. The nighttime “bleep” of the tree frogs gives way to the vocalization of early risers. A rooster crows that he’s the cock of the walk, to be answered by a dozen others claiming the same title. Soon a frenzy of sleepy dogs report that they are on guard, warning away intruders. As the sky lightens, a family of goats comes to life, calling to each other, their bells tinkling as they wander the rocky hills. A cow, a donkey, a horse begin tuning up. A fisherman starts his outboard and heads to sea.

The moon pales and sinks, the bright stars fade. The tops of the clouds blush pink and gold, the sun warms the horizon. For the short space of an hour, things are much as they always have been, and you remember why you came.

Then the idiots begin their high-speed harbor runs, shattering the morning serenade.

We are definitely getting old.

We prefer harbors free of the scream of high-powered outboards and jet skis, where people play their music belowdecks, rather than through huge speakers in the cockpit. Antigua is sometimes a little too close to civilization, although it is a good place to get work done. After 30 days, it was time to move on.

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